Innovation Anchored in Tradition:
Action Research @ Glendale Community College

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Reflection on '04-'05

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Michael Dulay

Summary and Reflections

"You ask me about how I understand the word community...  Communities are not what you think.   If you take time to watch nature, you will understand community.   The moose up the road lives in community with the wolf; and the eagle is in community with the fish- but they do not always agree, and sometimes one sustains the other by feeding their young.   People are no different- we just have two legs.   Our brain sometimes misinforms us- we think we are the community instead of understanding our part in many communities.   Webs- I've heard you use that word- webs are communities serving spiders, flowers, the dew, people, sister wolf and brother moose.   Sometimes we all live together in harmony, sometimes a piece of the web is stretched by disagreement.   This is important for you to understand because if a person leaves the community who you do not agree with, chances are a new person will appear that you will also not agree with.   Balance and movement- communities are sustained that way- just like nature."

Nadine Chase, Ojibwa Elder

Although I am enamored by the complex logic used in the description above, I rarely see the term, community, treated with such reverence. Most "official" definitions refer to people living in a common area who have common interests. The sad simplicity of this type of definition is exacerbated by the revolutionary technology of today. Namely, the internet and networking technology have enabled people to form communities that are not bound by a person's location or interests. What does this do to our understanding and maintenance of communities, as they have existed for centuries? As one who teaches through a community college, I have often wondered about community's role in public education.   The current research project has given me far more that I could have anticipated.   I began with a need to understand the nature of and best practices in hybrid courses, and I clarified my ideas about my praxis, community, and community colleges along the way.

My early concerns during the course of this research project centered on increasing retention and exploring educational technology that would most effectively do so. This search forced me to question my technocentrism in evaluating technology. Technocentricism is a bias, asserted by Papert (1987), that places technology before pedagogy in a person's critique of educational technology. As I sampled technology available, I realized that I was approaching my search with the wrong questions. Rather than asking about the technology, I should have been asking about my assumptions and beliefs about student learning. I should have been looking inward, not outward.

While working on my undergraduate degree in psychology, I read the works of Vygotsky, Dewey, Bruner, and Rogoff, but I never internalized the primacy of their messages. As an educator, I re-read the works of these theorists with a different set of eyes; and I found myself marveling over my own embodiment of the ideas that they proposed. I was constructing knowledge as a function of my prior knowledge, current identity, and social experiences as a member of a community. Collectively, this is a form of social constructivism, and it made questionable virtually every aspect of my life as a teacher.

My responses to the most obvious questions are outlined in this research project. First, I adopted technology that could foster social constructivism. Second, I learned to be fearless in my redesigning of courses so that could begin to foster community. Third, I attempted to share these lessons learned with my colleagues via a series of workshops and lab sessions. These three changes are detailed in each cycle report, but they were expected- and therefore can be seen as safe changes that came with constructivist practice. However, each of these three cycles seemed to subvert methods that had served me well thus far in my teaching career. The following questions were selected from my list of subversive thoughts (about my pedagogy), and I believe that they provide a gestalt of my budding identity as a social constructivist.

How do the social dynamics of classrooms and community connect people and course content?
Constructivism holds together communities on a radical level.   People connect behaviorally, affectively, and cognitively.   Behavioral connections are obvious aspects of community.   People sit with each other, play in same parks, talk with each other in classrooms, interact with the community's librarians, law officers, educators, and other hubs of the community. Affective and cognitive connections underlay these interactions, and they are far more complex.   Constructivist theory helps decipher this complexity because it explains the interaction of ideas between people.   For instance, my mention of Freud's penis envy (as part of lecture on psychodynamic theory) is not just four syllables: pe-nis en-vy.   My students- as does the reader of this page- must react to the words: "penis envy" What is a penis?   What is your history with the word?   What is envy?   Have you experienced it? Their reactions are colored by the learning that has occurred throughout their lives, not simply in my classroom. How have their families and communities dealt with these words? If the word "penis" was socially impermissible, then their affective reactions to the word may hinder their ability to discuss Freud's immensely symbolic use of it.

I must develop ways to better understand my students' learning as a function of this nexus (of affect, behavior, and cognition) and its social nature. One possible solution lays in the development of a system that can capture and track case histories of individual student learning. This history could be documented in a portfolio electronically, which could then be shared by educators throughout the student's career. Continuity could be created in such a manner, and it would empower educators by painting a continuous and clear picture of the student's zone of proximal development. My experience with blog technology has given me some optimism in this area. Blogs could be used to house a student's work throughout their careers, and this is a possibility that I will be exploring in the coming year.

Do standardized multiple choice tests allow me to assess the learning of each student?
Constructivism acknowledges that who we are impacts what we learn. Therefore, each of my students learns differently, despite my best efforts to teach to the exit standards outlined in each course. My early response to the logic of diverse learning styles was to increase the modalities with which I had presented material. Although this does help address the diversity of learning styles, it was not paired with assessments that would allow me to assess these learning styles. To best capture this dilemma, I offor the wisdom of Dennis Littkey (2005), who encourages teachers to learn how do I treat everyone alike differently.

Collecting a variety of assessments is one way of doing this. Wiggins and McTighe (1998) propose a continuum of assessment methods -from informal checks of understanding to performance tasks/projects- to capture the evidence of student understanding. The following demonstrate my efforts to diversify the assessments used in a range of my classes.

Personal Theory: Assignment & Sample
Research Paper: Assignment & Sample
Quiz: Multiple Choice
Exam: Error Correction
Exam: Essay Response
Writing Activities (via blog): Prompts Responses
Instant Messenger Discussion: Learning Theories
Oral Exams: Video of Oral Exam Session

Wiggins and McTighe (1998) developed a model for establishing curricular priorities as a first step in course design. Since I was in the midst of a re-design, I developed a model for my PSY101 (General Psychology) courses. This outline enabled me to be more thoughtful and meticulous in my design of assessments. It has also given me a framework for thinking about the design and RE-design of my courses. This is one area of growth that has become central to my professional life over the past year. I now see the need to constantly reflect, assess, and renew as part of my career.

What is my role in the community? and what is my college's?

I feel that what transpired in my courses over the past year has given me vision for my future. Learning cannot be restrained to one course that makes up a fraction of a person's life. History should not only be taught in history courses, nor should psychology be shared in only psychology courses. This practice of pigeon-holing curricula as a function of one's expertise no longer serves the students' or society's best interests. Students need to learn to think about history throughout their lives and in all of their courses. They need to learn to think about themselves as psychologists throughout their lives. Many do not because they have learned that thought should be confined to a course and discipline. Perhaps this is the reason so many look forward to the end of each academic term...

Learning is a life long endeavor that should be shared. It defines our lives, and we should long to experience it's social nature constantly. This vision goes well beyond my classroom, but it begins there. More importantly, this vision is not new- and it is not my own. In 1916, John Dewey wrote that "a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience". Democracy is an institution in which people govern themselves, but too often this is interpreted as a system where individuals share ideas objectively, outside the self, in order to come to decisions that reflect a majority of opinion. This is too simple. Democracy functions because people do not live isolated, objective existences. We connect and our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors rub constantly. Democratic decisions should be arrived via these means- with people experiencing the lives of others. Sadly, I fear that we've suppressed this natural tendency toward connection in numerous ways. Traditional education is one of the culprits.

The typical class assigns grades based on individual merit exclusively; it celebrates the same merit with its system of reinforcements. We encourage disconnection, while preaching unity, community, and democracy. The message is schizophrenic, and one possible remedy lays in a calculated re-conceptualization of community across education. As with all change and visionary thinking, one must begin with the self. I teach in a community college, and so embracing community here seems absolutely appropriate. In my classes, I am learning to use learning community designs and learning circle models, as well as collaborative learning practices to re-assert community in education. I suspect this will be a long process of learning, but that is life- and I am learning to celebrate learning as a lifelong endeavor.

As an educator, I am compelled to take this celebration well beyond my self. As "conjoint communicated experience" (ibid, 1916), I feel obligated to help provide opportunities for connections between people and knowledge in the college community. Students need places to think together outside the classroom and across distances. Faculty and staff share this need, and technology can easily be used to fulfill it. A simple electronic bulletin board, such as phpBB, is free, and I plan on setting one up in the coming weeks for the community. As ideas are shared, "associated living" may slowly become a reality and people may begin to experience each other more genuinely. As a public institution honored with the responsibility of teaching civic duty (in addition to course content and vocational skills), I feel that need to re-conceptualize community is dire. This participatory action research project has given me a vehicle with which to move forward with my own progress toward renewing my place in the community and my appreciation of it.

 

 


References

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. Dover Publications; Mineola, NY.

Littky, D. (2004). The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Alexandria, VA.

Papert, S. (1987).    Computer criticism vs. technocentric thinking.    Educational Researcher, 16 (I), 1-17.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998).   Understanding by Design.   Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Alexandria, VA.

 


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